Stacey Abrams hosting Q&A session with black farmers during Sept. 17 forum at Mountain Laurel Farm. Image by Elijah Cosby.
Black farmers asked. Politician Stacey Abrams answered. “If we want change in Georgia, our policies have to look different,” said Abrams, Democrat, former state representative and tax attorney. “Politicians can’t represent Georgia if they haven’t seen or listened to Georgia. I want to hear from you, so what are the gaps in policy and understanding?”
During a mid-September farmers forum, Abrams held a candid conversation with up to 30 African-American agriculturalists and residents of North Georgia at historic Mountain Laurel Farm in Cleveland, Georgia. I was able to join this country land count to hear some of the same challenges I’ve heard throughout my nearly two decade’s worth of Black Belt Region research.
Primarily, lack of resources to rural communities and black farmers. Other concerns shared: health care and insurance; higher education for first generations; small business startups; HBCU institutions’ role in agriculture; growing hemp in the state; infrastructure to support agricultural efforts; difficult loan programs, paperwork to sustain the land; technology to support agribusinesses; voting in a free, fair election; environmental friendly practices to work the land; food systems for youth to learn, sustain; and marketing tools for farmers to promote services.
Tammy Harris, president of This Old Farmhouse GA and representative of Southeastern African American Farmers’ Organic Network, questions lack of access to infrastructure and equipment for small black farmers.
And the list went on. After a questionable lost in 2018’s Georgia governor’s race, Abrams now leads a new battle against voter suppression with both her “Fair Fight” and “Fair Count” campaigns. Partnering with the Southern Economic Advancement Project (SEAP) at the Roosevelt Institute, Abrams is in the process of collecting information from rural residents about their 21st-century needs. Located in Atlanta, SEAP studies, develops and proposes state policies that tackle poverty, health care access, economic security, environmental justice and inequality. It specifically focuses on the Southern region of the nation.
The goal: to ensure Georgia’s rural communities are better informed and connected to resources — physically and digitally. “Before Veronica’s (speaking to me) head explodes,” said Abrams, “I have to stress that online information is limited. A lot of rural areas don’t have access to broadband. Basic connectivity just doesn’t exist. It’s an issue that’s unseen and unheard.” Drive outside Macon and for about 2 hours there’s no signal. “It’s 2019,” Abrams said. “It’s lazy.”
A pilot project Abrams is working on as the 2020 Census approaches is Internet installations in churches and communities who aren’t able to get online. “We want to make sure rural communities get counted,” she said. This tech solution for Small Town USA is exactly what African-American farmers of the Black Belt Region lack to connect their products and services to today’s digital economy as well.
Chérie Bryant, founder of Folks and Forks and partner with Melody Lothridge of Mountain Laurel Farm, moderates the forum.
“We need help, and we always need allies,” said forum attendee Alexis Harris. “African-American farming issues aren’t just our issues. It’s about our communities, too. We all benefit from agriculture. We all need the knowledge and resources to keep up with the times.” Abrams agreed. She added that the participants agricultural concerns are also national ones.
“Take the Green New Deal on climate change and economic inequality” said Abrams. “It’s comprehensive but not law. What does it mean for the South? Energy relates to farming. So we have to keep in mind that national policies intersect with these local conversations.” The forum ended with participants urging each other to stay in contact, share information and consider ways of creatively collaborating to sustain in agriculture. “From here, I’m going to work with SEAP to weed through these concerns,” said Abrams. “This way we can figure out next steps.”